By Geonn Cannon
Let This Be the One Bad Thing That Happens Today
Alex woke the next morning unsure of what time she'd finally fallen asleep. She had mentally kicked herself the entire way home and as she stared at the ceiling, trying to grasp the reasons that had been so clear back at Rachel's apartment. She kicked aside her blankets and slipped out of bed, automatically reaching for her cell phone. When she realized the corner of the dresser was bare, she bent down and searched the pockets of her jeans. Nothing. She sighed and dropped the pants. She'd track her phone down later.
In the shower, she shampooed her hair and, fearing the wrath of Moon Ki-hyun, added in the conditioner she'd bought the day before. She was about to step out of the shower and, at the last minute, decided to shave her legs. The date with Rachel was at the back of her mind; she'd had reasons for leaving the night before, but damned if she could remember them in the light of a new day. If the opportunity arose tonight, she didn't want her legs to be the deciding factor.
Once she was out of the shower and dressed, she headed downstairs and searched her front seat for the errant cell phone. She was annoyed to find the remote for her car alarm was malfunctioning and the car had spent the entire night unprotected. But it still sat in the same space, everything seemed in order, so she wasn't too worried.
The bad news was that the cell phone was nowhere to be found, not even when she knelt on the passenger side and peered upside-down beneath the driver's seat. She sat down and stared at the floor in frustration. She reached over and fiddled with her CDs, frowning when she saw how cock-eyed they looked. "I thought Rachel put these back a little neater," she muttered, straightening the cases.
With a sigh, she got out of the car and slammed the door. She set the alarm, making sure this time that the alarm chirped, and headed back upstairs. As she was unlocking her apartment door, it hit her.
The beach. The phone must've fallen out of her pocket when she and Rachel were sitting on the beach with the funnel cake. She kicked herself again - she was finding a lot of reasons to do that, it seemed - and headed to the house phone. She dialed her own number and leaned against the counter, chewing her bottom lip as the ring tone sounded in her ear.
After a minute with no answer, she sighed and hung up. She didn't fancy another drive all the way out to that boardwalk, but she couldn't exactly think of any other options. If she did, she'd have to do it soon in order to get back in time for her date. She dialed again, this time Rachel's number.
"Hello?" a sleepy voice replied.
"I'm sorry, I can call back..."
"No, I'm up, I'm here," Rachel said. "Alex. Hi. I'm up."
Alex couldn't help smiling. "Hi. How are you?"
"Sleepy," she said. "What's up?"
"I just wanted to let you know I have to head out to the beach again... I lost my cell phone, so I want to see if I dropped it when we had our snack."
"I just didn't want you to worry if I was incommunicado today. And I *will* be there for dinner. What time should I be at your place?"
"I was thinking seven. We could eat and then maybe watch a DVD, listen to some music... whatever."
The 'whatever' made the hair on Alex's arms stand up and she smiled. "Sounds good."
"I was thinking making an Alaska Salmon Bake... is there anything you're allergic to? Lactose intolerant, vegetarian, anything I should know before heading out to buy groceries?"
"Definitely not a vegetarian and I don't have an issue with allergies. The salmon thing sounds wonderful."
"Okay... so I'll see you at seven."
They hung up and Alex grabbed her leather backpack. She left the apartment, and prayed she could track down the right part of the beach.
Rachel hopped out of bed and checked her watch as she dressed. She couldn't believe she'd overslept, but she'd spent a long time staring at the ceiling and wondering how she could have made Alex stay the night before. She had a few errands to run, ingredients for the salmon bake to pick up. She attempted to set the world record for showering, dressed quickly and hid her wet hair under a baseball cap.
As she was gathering her purse and things, her cell phone rang. She pulled the door shut with her free hand as she flipped the phone open. "Dr. Rachel Tom," she said. "Who is this?"
No reply. She took the phone away from her ear and looked at the display screen. 'Information Not Available.' She grimaced. "Hello?" she said again. When no one answered, she disconnected and shoved the phone into her purse. She headed downstairs and had just stepped onto the sidewalk when the phone rang again. She sighed and paused, checking the readout. 'Information Not Available.' She silenced the ringer and decided to ignore it for the rest of the morning.
He blinked when he saw the woman on the street pause and look down at her cell phone. Surely it was just a coincidence... he couldn't be so lucky... He smiled as the woman stuck the still-chirping phone into her purse. She looked different than she had last night, but this must be the same woman he'd seen Crawford with. He put the cell phone down and slipped out of his car to follow her on foot.
Alex stepped out of the bakery and planted both hands on her hips. She scanned the boardwalk and tried to remember where they'd gone the night before. Three businesses were open, but none of them reported anyone turning in a lost cell phone. She spotted a clump of bushes that looked familiar and shifted the sand with the toe of one shoe. She'd borrowed a cell phone from someone in the bakery, so she dialed her number and searched the sand again, waiting to hear the familiar ringing coming from one of the small dunes. Nothing.
She returned the phone to the man in the bakery and reluctantly headed back to her Jeep, casting a look over her shoulder at the sand. If the phone wasn't here, where else could it possibly have gotten lost?
He followed Dr. Tom through an assortment of stores and restaurants, pausing outside a fish market and waiting for her to come out rather than following her in. He took a moment to see what she bought and tried to get a picture of what she was planning. So far, she'd picked up a small bag of lemons, some parsley and a bag of pecans. He was stymied. The fish market probably held the secret key ingredient, but he dared not go inside while she was still there.
From across the street, he peered through the glass and wished the market was on the other side of the street; at the moment, the sun was wreaking havoc with his spying.
She exited a few minutes later with a large bag, the shape of the box within giving him absolutely no clues. He waited until she got ahead of him and began to track her again. She seemed happy, practically gliding down the sidewalks as she completed her chores. She stopped at an outdoor ATM and he got into line two people behind her. He had his head ducked, pretending to go through his wallet when she turned and walked past him.
After a few minutes of wandering, he struck upon a brilliant idea. He almost jogged back the way they'd come, going back to the apartment he'd spent all night in front of. He found countless ways to look busy without looking like he was loitering, smiling politely to passers-by, pausing to tie his shoe or to lean against the wall and speak into the cell phone he'd pilfered from Alex Crawford's car.
Finally, after only twenty minutes of waiting, opportunity struck. He had Alex's phone pressed to his ear when he saw the elevator inside the lobby open. This was his chance. He hesitated just long enough so that the elevator passenger could get to the front door. Then, he moved onto the front steps just as the tenant was pushing the door open.
"I don't care if that's what he said," he sighed, faking a conversation. He grasped the door and pulled it open, giving the tenant a courteous smile. 'Just here to help,' the smile said. "Yeah, I'm right outside your building now, Rachel. I'll be up in a minute."
The tenant walked on, seemingly not hearing or not caring about the conversation.
He smiled. He was a damn good improviser.
Rachel used her code on the intercom and the door signaled that it had been accepted. She pulled the door open and made a bee-line for the elevator, hoping to get the fish into the freezer before they started to thaw. She'd lost a lot of time getting that idiot connoisseur to admit he wasn't sure of the best wine for her meal and call someone else to help. She stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for her floor just as someone in the lobby called out, "Hey! Hold the elevator, please!"
She did as he asked, sticking her leg out and letting the doors bounce off her calf. The man stepped inside the car and exhaled, leaning against the wall. "Almost didn't make it," he said with a bright smile. "Thanks for holding it."
"Ten years of squat thrusts finally pay off," she said. *'Please let the fish be all right,'* she whispered in her mind, watching the numbers. "Um, which floor?"
"Um, the, uh... fourth."
Rachel frowned. "I'm the only tenant on the fourth floor. Unless... well, the landlord keeps some supplies up there."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I must have my numbers mixed up." He reached over and pressed the button for the lobby.
She glanced at him, suddenly wary. He was dressed casually, in a sweatshirt and jeans, but he seemed somehow uncomfortable in them. He was wearing a baseball cap with a completely straight visor, meaning it was relatively new. "Who buzzed you into the building?"
"The super. I'm helping him out a little today, you know, taking up some of the slack. He's my uncle."
She nodded, but wasn't particularly convinced. She made a mental note to call the super and make sure this guy was on the up-and-up. He motioned at her shopping bags. "Had yourself a little spree, did ya?"
"I'm preparing something for dinner tonight."
"Ah. Bought something from Fisherman's Wharf, I see?"
"Yeah," she said. The elevator doors opened and she stepped out, making sure not to turn away from the man for too long. "Is there anything you need on this floor?"
"No, I should go see my uncle about what he wanted me to do. It was nice to meet you."
She nodded slowly. "Yeah. You, too..."
The elevator doors closed and she headed for the stairs, leaning over the railing until she could see the sliver of the lobby below. Listening intently, she heard the ding of the elevator followed by footsteps on the tile floor. Her heart pounded as she waited to hear him on the steps, coming up to catch her unawares. Instead, she heard the front door of the building open and close.
She stepped back. Whoever the guy was, she must have scared him off. He should work on his cover story, though... now that she thought about it, she was pretty sure the superintendent was an only child. No way was he an uncle.
Putting the bizarre incident out of her head, she unlocked her apartment door and repeated her internal mantra: *'Please don't let the salmon be hurt.'*
He kicked himself for giving in to impulse. He never should have gotten into the elevator with her. But all's well that ends well, he supposed. She had been suspicious from the very beginning, but he felt that she wasn't overly concerned about him. She'd probably already put him from her mind. He wondered if she would mention the incident to Alex over dinner. It was unlikely, unless her life was so without drama that such a bizarre interlude was all she had to talk about.
He walked back to his car and slipped behind the wheel. He considered calling again, another hang-up, but decided against it. Couldn't have her putting two-and-two together with the crank calls and the weird man in the elevator.
Putting the phone in the glove box, he sank down in his seat and prepared for another long stake-out.
Rachel washed her hands, as the water on the stove slowly came to a boil. She wiped her hands off on a dishtowel and went back to them, eyeing the recipe she had propped against the seasoning bowls. "Okay... mix this and that and set aside. Mix these and... Crap!" She just noticed that the dish required finely chopped pecans. She cursed herself and looked at the whole pecans she had bought. What the hell had she been thinking?
She put the mustard, honey and butter into a mixing bowl, nestling the phone between her ear and shoulder as she mixed it. "Hello, yes, this is Rachel Tom from the Spring Creek Apartments?...Yes, Apartment 4...I have a problem...Do you happen to stock finely chopped pecans?...You do?...Yes, I'll pay extra for delivery...How much do...Just one bag...Okay...All right...I'll buzz him in...Thank you so much." She hung up and smiled, "Crisis averted!"
That done, she skipped to the next step. She quartered the baby potatoes and dumped them into one pot of boiling water. The green beans went into the next pot. With the side items going, she turned her attention to the main course and started by seasoning the raw salmon fillets. She didn't know how spicy Alex liked her food, so she kept it at a happy medium. She used a basting brush to apply the mustard/honey mixture and glanced at the clock just as the downstairs buzzer sounded. "Right on time," she smiled.
She buzzed him up and was waiting at the door when the elevator doors opened. The same kid who always delivered her groceries smiled at her. "Are you ordering nuts just so you can see me, Dr. Tom?"
"That must be it, Michael," she said, taking the bag and handing him a ten. "Keep the change. Get yourself a haircut."
He rolled his eyes and stepped back into the elevator before the doors even had a chance to close. She waved good-bye and went back into the kitchen. "I'm on a roll," she whispered as she mixed the pecans with bread crumbs. She added a small amount of parsley and smiled at the way it all looked on the fish. "Marvelous. It *is* a good thing."
She withdrew the small ruler her mother had ordered her to always keep on hand and stuck it into the thickest portion of the thickest fillet. "Inch and a half thick... ten minutes per inch... fifteen minutes."
She set the tray into the oven and said, "Have a nice rest, fellas." She reached for the dial that turned on the heat, her fingers tensing as she gripped it. She took a breath and whispered, "Stop it." As if she'd uttered the magic words, her fingers turned the dial to three hundred degrees.
With nothing left to do, she checked her watch. The food was cooking, the table was set and the waiting game had begun. She nestled the bottle of wine in a bucket of ice as she tugged off her apron and headed down the hall for a proper shower.
Alex was home in time to change, put on the bare minimum of make-up and checking her messages. No one had called to tell her they'd found the errant cell phone. She sighed and dialed the number once more, hoping for a miracle. Still nothing. Okay... so it was official. Her cell phone was missing. Not great, but not the most terrible thing in the world.
"Please," she whispered as she headed back out. "Let this be the one bad thing that happens today..."
Hair blow-dried, make-up applied, dress half-on, Rachel returned to the kitchen and bent down to check the progress of her meal through the glass front of the oven. Everything looked good and the kitchen had a wonderful smell building in it. Shrugging into the shoulder straps of her dress, she zipped herself up using a hanger and straightened the bodice. Perfect.
She sliced two lemons and lay them on the edges of her finest china plates. They were just regular, black china - no one to pick a pattern with, sadly - but they were the nicest dishes she owned. She found her wine glasses, holding them up to the light and wiping away any watermarks she could see. She put those down on either side of the table and went to the kitchen to dig through her groceries. She found two decent-sized pieces of parsley to accent the plate with and placed them next to the lemon-halves.
Her oven timer dinged and she removed the fish from the oven. They smelled divine, but she used a fork to flick the corner of one to make sure it was flaky enough. "Perfect," she smiled.
She turned off the oven, looking all the way down the row of dials that lined the front of the stove top. She fiddled with them, turning them all a half-turn to the right before turning them off again. They were all off, the little red light was dark, the oven was off. She bent down and peered through the glass; making sure the red-hot coils were fading back to black.
Finally convinced the stove was actually off, she carefully transferred the fillets to the plates. She took special care arranging them just so, and then added the potatoes and green beans to complete the picture. Her stomach growled its approval and she smiled, looking at the clock. Seven minutes until seven. Could she time it or could she time it?
Sneaking a green bean to hush her stomach, she removed the bucket from beneath her sink and filled it with ice. The bottle of wine - pinot noir - was placed in the bucket and wouldn't be opened until dinner. She realized she was breathing hard, anxious about her date with Alex. All she could think about was what Alex thought of this meal. She snuck another green bean and began setting the table.
He watched Alex pace outside the apartment, going into the alcove a few times but retreating before she made her move. The third aborted attempt made him groan in frustration. He wanted to pound on his horn and yell at her to just get it over with, but he didn't want her to know she was being watched. Finally, after an excruciating wait, she pressed the intercom button and went inside.
"About time," he muttered, sliding down in his seat and watching the highest window.
"I'm sorry if I'm early," Alex said. She looked down at Rachel's dress. "Wow. You look beautiful."
"You're right on time, actually," Rachel said. She ignored the compliment and tried not to blush at the scrutiny she was under. Alex had worn a buttoned-down shirt and black slacks, going with what had worked for her on the first date, but Rachel was in a low-cut black velvet dress that ended just above her knees. Her hair was up but loose, a few strands curtaining her face.
Alex broke off her examination long enough to hold up the meager assortment of flowers. "I-I didn't know if I was supposed to bring anything... this was all they had down at the shop on the corner."
"They're lovely," Rachel said. She took them and bent to sniff one petal. "I'll just go find a vase, okay? Would you like something to drink?"
"Yes, please. Whatever you have is fine." While Rachel was in the kitchen, Alex took the opportunity to wander the apartment. She edged towards the dining room table, and admired the beautiful setting; two candles, two water glasses. All it was missing were the flowers, which she had actually remembered to bring. Hiding a triumphant smile at the thought of doing something right, she said, "It smells amazing in here."
"Momma was a chef," Rachel said as she returned from the kitchen with the flowers in a bell-shaped vase. In her other hand, she held two glasses of wine by the stems. "Would you..." Alex took the glasses and Rachel placed the flowers between the candles. "Momma taught me how to make a delicious feast in under an hour. It's a helpful trick when you spend half the day before a big date in bed."
Alex laughed and said, "Well, I'm sure it will be marvelous. You look marvelous. Did I say that?"
"You did," Rachel laughed. "You can say it again, too, but three is your limit."
"Well, then," Alex said, "I'll save the last one for later."
Rachel blushed slightly and pulled one of the chairs out. "Have a seat. I'll go get our dinner." She got halfway into the kitchen before she said, "Oh, do you mind lighting the candles? There's a lighter right on the edge of the table."
"Sure," Alex said. The lighter had a long neck with a trigger below. There was a child-safety roller that Alex had to push with her thumb before she could activate the flame. It took her two tries before she realized that the trigger was locked in place. She released that and lit both flames as Rachel returned. "Have a lot of kids around?" she asked, waving the wand jokingly.
Rachel tensed slightly. "Don't play with that."
"Okay," Alex said. She put the lighter down on the table. "Sorry."
Rachel smiled self-consciously and put the plates down. "No, I'm sorry. I'm Ms. Worry-Wart about stuff like lighters and leaving the oven on and all that."
"Ah, a firefighter's dream woman."
Rachel grinned and said, "Have a seat."
Alex sat as instructed and allowed Rachel to push her seat in. When she was settled, Rachel bent down and nuzzled the back of her neck. She whispered, "I'm really glad you came tonight."
Alex shuddered in response.
Rachel stroked her arms once before retreating back to the other side of the table. "Dinner is served," she said, placing one in front of Alex and one in front of her seat. She vanished again and returned with a bottle of wine in an ice bucket. "And here is the wine, in case you need a refill."
"Wow," Alex said. "I thought we weren't going to a restaurant tonight..."
Rachel smiled self-consciously and said, "Well, I couldn't exactly defrost a couple of TV dinners and plop them down in front of you, right?"
"A TV dinner would still be wonderful as long as I ate it with you."
Rachel ducked her head to hide her blush. "You keep making me blush," she said shyly.
"Should I stop?"
"Stop and I'll hurt you," Rachel warned.
Alex took the wine from the ice and popped the cork, managing to accomplish the feat without the cork flying across the room. She stood and poured a little more into each of their glasses. When she sat again, she lifted her glass and toasted, "To Alfred Jones."
"To Alfred Jones," Rachel agreed. Their glasses chimed against each other and they each took a sip. "Now... let's dig in. I skipped lunch and I'm famished."
"So. The numb comment from the other night," Rachel said without prompting.
Alex looked over the rim of her wineglass and raised an eyebrow.
Rachel dabbed her lips with a napkin and cleared her throat. She looked down at her half-cleared plate and shifted slightly in her seat. "I feel I should tell you about just so... you'll know. I had an older sister, my idol. She was only a few years older than me, but I just adored her. She protected me." Her eyes drifted and then snapped back to Alex. "Anyway, when I lost her..." she let that fade off. She licked her lips and took a drink before starting again, "When I lost my sister, it was like my arms had fallen off. I was... adrift. When I was sixteen, Rebecca - that's my sister - had been gone for ten years, but I was still adrift. So I started hanging out with women that were stronger than me. Women who could... protect me like Rebecca had.
"The girl I was seeing when I was eighteen, the girl I lost my virginity to, liked to prove she could protect me. She hit me... broke my little finger just to prove she could."
"Rachel," Alex whispered.
She shook her head. "It's fine. I got out before graduating high school, she vanished... I got help. It was my first and last abusive relationship. I just... have a hard time trusting people."
Alex nodded. "So... why did you trust me? I mean, not to sound ungrateful..."
Rachel smiled. "I stepped out of the elevator and I saw you sitting on that bed... and they told me you needed help. Something in me..." She shrugged her tanned shoulders and looked down at her wine. "I don't know. It was like it was the last step of putting the past behind me; helping someone stronger."
Alex shook her head. "I'm not stronger than you."
"You are," Rachel said. She reached across the table and touched Alex's hand. "I promise."
Alex stroked the back of Rachel's hand. "So... am I replacing your sister?"
"No. I've given up trying to replace her. You're just someone with big arms that I want to feel wrapped around me."
Alex shuddered - a very good shudder, a kind she hadn't felt in quite awhile - and smiled. "Can we finish eating first?" she asked.
Rachel laughed. "Sure, I can wait until we finish eating."
Alex resisted the urge to lick her plate, settling instead for stealing a potato from Rachel's plate. "That was the most delicious piece of fish I have ever tasted," she said as she leaned back in her seat. "You're a culinary goddess."
"A culinary demigoddess, maybe," Rachel countered as she stood. "My mother holds the title, even though she's long gone. But I accept your compliment." They gathered the dishes together and carried them into the kitchen, placing the dishes in the sink for another time. Alex put an arm around Rachel as they walked into the living room, the plan being to choose a DVD for part two of their date, but halfway there Alex stopped.
"What is it?" Rachel asked.
In lieu of a response, Alex bent down and kissed Rachel's lips. She cupped her face with both hands and moaned quietly. Her fingers lightly brushed Rachel's cheeks and moved the feather-soft waves of hair out of the way. Their tongues dueled, exchanging the essence of the meal they'd just shared, and Rachel's body went limp. When they parted, Alex looked down into Rachel's eyes and said, "It's been a while since anyone looked at me the way you have tonight."
Rachel didn't know what to say to that, so she simply pressed her face against Alex's shoulder. As they embraced, she felt the sinewy muscles of Alex's back, her strong shoulders filling out the back of the shirt. "Remember what I said about wrapping your arms around me?"
Alex flattened her palms against Rachel's shoulders, held her tight, breathed the scent of her hair. "Tight enough?" she whispered.
"I feel so safe with you," she whispered, the feel of Alex's arms around her blocking out the rest of the world. Her lips moving against the crisp material of Alex's shirt, she asked, "If I asked you to stay tonight..."
"It would save me having to ask you," Alex interrupted. Her hands were on the bare part of Rachel's back between her shoulder straps. Her fingertips were practically searing the skin.
They moved together, Rachel angling Alex back until she was against the wall. "What--" Alex asked, but quieted when Rachel shushed her. They kissed again, but only briefly before Rachel began to kiss her way down Alex's neck.
She worked the buttons of Alex's dress shirt, parting the two halves and kissing each exposed bit of flesh before she reached the arch of the white tank top underneath.
The feel of Rachel's tongue on her skin was almost too much for Alex to take. She reached her hands out to either side, chin against her collar, watching as Rachel moved lower. She kissed through the material of Alex's bra and undershirt, lifting the hem and nuzzling the exposed flesh of her abdomen with lips and tongue.
As her zipper was tugged down, Alex scooted her feet apart and looked across the room. She could see herself in the window, breasts pressing against the taut tank top as she took a deep breath. She was a crucified supplicant, her fingers digging at the wall for any kind of handhold as Rachel lowered her pants and underwear down to mid-thigh.
What followed was a miracle of the lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue and points south. Rachel made quiet noises, spoke half-words, but the meaning wasn't important. The sound of her voice was, the vibrations her lips made, the thrumming of her tongue as she lapped at her dessert.
Alex turned her eyes skyward and focused on the black veins of the skylight. She could see the moon, could see everything, and there in a hazy reflection, herself. Herself, pants around her knees, with a beautiful woman in a beautiful gown kneeling before her as if in worship. She arched her back and moved one hand down to thread Rachel's perfect hair through her fingers as she came.
With kisses along her thighs and then slipping over her abdomen, Rachel stood again. She kissed Alex with meaning, wet lips sliding along dry, hands slipping around her waist. "Good?" Rachel asked as she pressed her forehead against Alex's.
"Mm," Alex replied, eyes closed.
Rachel bent down and pulled Alex's clothes back into place, helping her fasten the slacks. They kissed again and Rachel stepped away, going over to the couch. "What about you?" Alex asked.
"We have all night," Rachel smiled. "You should probably pace yourself."
Alex followed her, sitting on the couch and letting Rachel curl complacently against her side. *'Pace myself,'* she thought. *'Yeah. Definitely something I can do.*' Still trembling in the elbows and knees, she kissed the top of Rachel's head as the movie started.
To be continued in Chapter Eleven
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